I was running late, so I didn’t think twice about driving 70mph on I-20W. When it began to rain, I took off the cruise control and slowed my speed to about 65mph. Then we had a good ole’ fashioned summer deluge (that stupid type of rain storm where the whole sky falls at once and then the sun pops out). That’s why the massive puddle under the overpass took me by surprise.
I tried to brake but hydroplaned and rammed into a red Chevy truck. I froze. It was my first time causing an accident and I could feel my heart sink into my stomach. All I could do is hope that the other drivers were okay.
Once we pulled over, relief rushed over me. The older couple was just fine. Their retro truck was in decent shape, too. My Subaru looked like it…well, it look like it had hit a steel-bodied truck. We did the whole insurance song and dance–I even helped them take pictures for their insurance company because they didn’t know how to use their iPhone–and then we waited four hours for police responders. It was exhausting but the drama was only beginning.
I got a ticket for driving too close. A month later, while standing before the prosecutor, I requested community service in lieu of paying the fine. (I enjoy volunteering anyway so that just made sense to me.) The prosecutor clearly thought I was an idiot but he agreed to the terms. I needed to work 35 hours of community service and they’d waive my first three months of PO fees. I thought it was a good exchange for being a menace to society.
The rules had changed since my brother got a ticket a few years earlier. Community service had to be worked in a local, state, or federal office–which meant no volunteering at my favorite yoga studio. No worries. I enjoyed doing river clean ups and filing library books in the past, and those opportunities were still open to me. I thought.
When I called around to ask about volunteer opportunities, the representatives were routinely happy to talk to me–until they learned my service was court ordered. The volunteer coordinator at Chattahoochee River Recreation Area demonstrably changed his demeanor. “If it’s court ordered, that’s not volunteering. That’s called community service. That’s different.” He went on to treat me as if I was the bane of society, the scum of the earth, and a complete waste of his time.
This scenario repeated with Gwinnett and Forsyth County Departments of Parks and Recreation. It was incredibly disheartening. The people who had welcomed me as a volunteer–some of whom I’d worked with in the recent past–now belittled me as a community service worker. Some locations, like the Forsyth County Public Library system, even refused to let me volunteer there at all!
I’ve heard stories about how hard it is to get back on your feet after incarceration. So many men and women turn back to crime because it’s too hard to get an honest job and get treated with dignity. My tiny brush with the law gave me a taste of that struggle. It doesn’t matter if it’s a traffic incident or triple homicide, the second that people hear you’ve got a “criminal history” they internalize you as a second-class citizen, a social burden. No one wants to work with you. Your record becomes all that they want to know about your character.
I wonder if any of the people that I spoke with had traffic violations. I’m sure they did. Would they want to be treated this way? I doubt it. But the golden rule evades the best of us, even the tree-hugging folks with the Parks and Rec departments in metro Atlanta.
If you learn anything from this post, let it be this: seriously, treat people how you would want to be treated. If you can take it a step further, be mindful of your prejudices–and then eradicate them.